Prompted by strong concerns of the horsemen's leadership over the ability of Magna Entertainment to complete construction of a safe racetrack for winter racing at Laurel Park, the Maryland Racing Commission yesterday ordered track management to create a contingency plan for both racing and the stabling of horses in the event the new track is unusable.

After falling behind schedule in the construction of the new dirt course, Magna had petitioned the commission to allow it to push back the reopening of Laurel to Dec. 26. At the monthly commission meeting yesterday at Pimlico, Wayne Wright, the executive secretary of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, asked what happens if the new track surface proves faulty and isn't safe.

Nearly 200 horses that otherwise would be training at Laurel are currently housed in tents on the backstretch at Pimlico, and Wright said the situation would be intolerable if they were still there in the winter.

"If we have any substantial amount of snow around the tents, we'll have a catastrophe," Wright said. "The insurance companies are aware of it. When you say 'tents' and 'snow,' the insurance company is headed for the door."

The commission created a four-member subcommittee to work with track management and horsemen on evaluating the construction and creating a backup plan for racing and stabling, which includes the possibility of negotiating with Delaware Park to temporarily house horses.

Track management does not believe the racing surface at Pimlico can be used in the winter, when the track can freeze or be covered in ice and snow. "We're pushing the envelope too far already," said Lou Raffetto, the chief operating officer.

Management applied for racing dates at Laurel from Dec. 26 through April 17 yesterday. "Our plan is to push hard to get this racetrack 100 percent," said Jim Gagliano, executive vice president of Maryland racing.

-- John Scheinman